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July 15-18, 2010
Orlando, Florida

Eating Death for Voldie: Exploring the Etymology of Toad Eater as Applied to 18th Century Women
Erynn Kerwin

Toad-eater was originally coined to be a person who performs a distasteful act on behalf of their superior after traveling conmen forced their assistants to eat toads, thought to be poisonous, before a crowd; the quack then revives his stooge with a miraculous cure-all potion, available for sale.  Eventually the term was shortened to Toady, which refers to any fawning sycophant, such as Dolores Umbridge.

In the 18th century, however, the expression was applied in numerous works of fiction and essays to “Ladies’ Companions”.  Propriety of the time deemed that a single woman of the gentry class, even if she were financially independent, could not live alone.  If she did not have any relatives she had to find a companion (either through word of mouth or advertising).  On the other side, a lady of gentle birth without the financial means to support herself could not take up employment and keep her status in society and so would hire herself out to this position.  These companions did not actually earn an income but were given room and board, occasional gifts of clothing and other necessities, and by accompanying their mistresses, stayed in the higher spheres of society.
The relationship between the ladies and their companions were criticized by writers of the day for their tendency to slip from congenial to tyrannical to completely abusive due to the imbalance of power held.  The toad-eater often took up her role on friendly terms but eventually found herself in a worse role than the household servants.  Essayists portray her suffering not only verbal and physical abuses but also spiritual, being forced to lie or steal or worse, and all for the sake of maintaining an upper class position.

Though these contracted relationships existed well before the 18th century, the literary criticisms arrived around that time and on a greater scale than actual instances warranted.  Feminism and women’s rights were still seedlings of ideas and it was illegal to write disparagingly of marriage.  Thus, the toad-eater served to start the debate on what happens in a partnership when one person’s will is supreme.

I came across this usage of toad-eater while studying the contemporaries of my favorite author, Jane Austen, who has been named by Rowling as her favorite writer as well.  It’s entirely plausible that she was aware of the social history of the term she modified for the evil and occasionally pitiful servants of Voldemort.  I’d like to provide examples from prose and essays of the time as well as actual documented instances from journals of 18th century women and open it to discussion on how they parallel our fictional Death Eaters.

Erynn Kerwin wandered here from Colorado Springs where she is a co-captain/founder for the Colorado Quidditch League.  Erynn aims to be a semi-professional fan of everything which catches her fancy including Harry Potter, dinosaurs, costumes, and trivial facts about the English Regency and surrounding periods.  She is also the surviving co-founder of the magical fraternity Delta Epsilon Tau, Death Eaters of Tomorrow.
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